BMCR 2009.02.02

Response: Collaborative Response to Lendering on Kaveh Farrokh, Shadows in the Desert. Ancient Persia at War

Response to 2008.09.62

Response by

Lendering’s review of Kaveh Farrokh, Shadows in the Desert: Ancient Persia at War is marred by a series of overt inaccuracies, misconceptions and mistakes with respect to the domain of ancient Iranian studies. Moreover he displays a consistent pattern of ignoring seminal works, journal publications, and research that contradict his points of view. Following are some examples of these misconceptions.

(1) The state of Iranian Studies. Lendering reports that “Farrokh’s statement that ‘there has been an overall decline of programs and studies of Iranica in western Europe and the United States since 1980’ could not be further from the truth.”

Lendering’s report is contradicted by prominent professors and academics of Iranian Studies. Professor Ehsan Yarshater, the editor of the Encyclopaedia Iranica, noted in an interview with the Gooya News Service on June 6, 2004 that“…the total number of competent scholars in Iranian Studies is decreasing…the number of young scholars drawn to Iranian Studies has become alarmingly low…the one exception is Italy…”. Since that interview, even Iranian studies in Italy have been threatened by the possible closure of the Istituto Italiano per l’Africa e l’Oriente (see

Lendering even claims that “In the 1970s, Iranology was a divided discipline, still in its infancy”. This is contradicted by Nasri (1983) as well as Babai (1994), Matini (1989) and Matini and Dabashi (1991) who have collectively noted that the field of Iranica was thriving in both the west and Iran in the 1970s, a process which has been reversed since 1979.

(2) Median Architecture and Arts. Lendering reports that “We are also to believe that the Median state was more centralized than the Achaemenid Empire…; if this were true, archaeologists would find some kind of common state architecture all over the Median realms, but they have not been able to establish which objects are indicative of Median presence. (Finds below the Achaemenid stratum are almost by definition called Median, but this does not mean that they resemble each other).”

Lendering ignores the main thrust of established research in the field including Diakonov (1985a, 1985b), Frye (1984), Hansman (1985), Pyankov (1965), and especially Stronach’s groundbreaking research at the Median settlement at Nush-i-Jan (1985) as well as more recent research. His belief that no consistent architectural style existed in Media indicates a lack of knowledge with respect to the vast scholarship and research that has already been conducted (and is currently underway) in Iran today, especially in Luristan, Ecbatana and Azerbaijan. Boucharlat and Razmjou in their comprehensive report in Iranica Antiqua on Median architecture (2005) note that many elements of Median artistic/architectural forms may be traced to the Ziwiye treasure, Urartu and nomadic regions, and that Median arts can be distinguished in two parts: (a) “the pure and original Media art” and (b) the realms to the north and west of the Medes which “mixed with Mesopotamian and Urartian elements”. Thus, Median architecture is characterised by both consistency and regional diversity. The Ziwiye artistic style was not only consistent in western and northwestern Iran but also influenced the ancient Ukraine through those Scythians who returned to the steppes after the revival of Median political power. The art of Ziwiye however was itself the result of a symbiosis with the steppe arts as well. Lendering’s lack of knowledge of the ancient basis of Median architecture is also evidenced by his lack of knowledge of rib vaulting, which is attributed to the Medes (see Van Beek 1987).

(3) The site of Persepolis and the Nowruz festival. Lendering reports (in footnote 10) that: “A textbook example of a secundum quid can be found on page 61, where it is stated that ‘it is a little-known fact that one of the most important functions of Persepolis was the celebration of the Persian New Year festival’. The main evidence is that on the reliefs on the stairs of the Apadana, people are shown bringing presents, which suggests that gifts were offered to the great king. But it does not prove that this happened at the New Year Festival.”

Lendering fails to mention that the statement “…the celebration of the Persian New Year festival which had acquired an imperial significance” is not Farrokh’s personal opinion but a referenced statement by Culican.1

Lendering’s view is represented by an handful of researchers whom he cites often: Sancisi-Weerdenburg, Kuhrt, and Briant. But even Briant is forced to admit that “…we must remain open to the hypothesis of an imperial festival… ” at Persepolis. The established basis of the subject is represented by seminal publications by the University of Chicago’s three-volume Persepolis publications, Porada, Shahbazi and Dutz. Dutz’s studies concluded the Persepolis was the site for “The New Year’s festival of Cyrus the Great”. More researchers may be cited who have noted of the importance of Persepolis with respect to Nowruz. One example is Matheson who noted that “…representatives of all the varied peoples of the empire gathered to pay homage, and bring tribute, to the King of Kings, probably each spring, at the time of the ancient Nowruz (New Year) festival” More recently, Simon, Mattar, and Bulliet noted that “…Art historians believe that the occasion [at Persepolis] depicted at Persepolis is the Nowruz (New Day) celebrations” The major reason why the brilliant hypotheses of Briant, Sancisi-Weerdenburg, Kuhrt, and Drijvers diverge from the aforementioned sources is in the failure to consult original Persian sources. such as the post-Islamic “Nowruz-Nameh” (The Book of Nowruz) by Omar Khayyam which reports very specific details of the Nowruz ritual took place at Persepolis. Lendering may be partly excused here as the sources that support his view do not cite Persian sources. On the other hand, Lendering does claim to be familiar with Persian and Babylonian sources.

(4) Dangers to archaeological sites. Lendering (in footnote 12) reports that: “An example is the statement that a dam in the river Sivand will endanger the site of Pasargadae, a report that often surfaces in the blogosphere. It was repeated on the CAIS website with a remark that “Iran’s pre-Islamic past and Iranians’ non-Islamic national identity and heritage have always been the subjects of abhorrence for the clerics. This diabolical plot by Ayatollahs in Tehran was set in motion in 1979 to destroy and erase all pre-Islamic Iranian past from the consciousness of the Iranian nation as part of their de-Iranianisation campaign”). This is innuendo, not scholarship. (The report about the flooding is probably a hoax).”

This statement is as surprising as it is categorically false. There have been officially documented cases of vandalism and damage directed against ancient pre-Islamic heritage sites such as Persepolis, Susa, Tang e Bolaghi, and Pasargardae. The most recent case in Persepolis was reported by official Iranian news sources inside Iran such as Maryam Tabeshian’s report in CHN on December 23rd 2006, which also raises concerns about the Bolaghi Gorge near Pasargadae. In the second week of August of 2008 a hotel construction company bought bulldozers to carve out 10,000 square meters from the ancient site of Susa. Much of the ancient thousands year old site has been destroyed by the bulldozers as reported by Iran-based agencies such as CHN (Cultural Heritage News) and Tabnak There have reports of deliberate damage at the palace of Darius the Great at Tang e Bolaghi. It is not clear why Lendering’s book report has omitted official news reports inside Iran that are neither politically motivated nor bear any relationship to the London-based CAIS website.

Ataee notes that while the inauguration of the Sivand Dam would not directly affect the (Bolaghi) Palace, the humidity generated by that dam can seriously damage the site over time. While Lendering may characterize the reports of the CAIS site as a “hoax”, the issue has been reported in the western media (e.g., The Guardian).

(5) Alexander the Great. Lendering reports that:”He [Farrokh] still claims that Alexander the Great was aiming at “unity between Iranians and Greeks” — that old canard of Droysen ( Verschmelzungspolitik), repeated by W.W. Tarn in the 1927 edition of the Cambridge Ancient History, and famously refuted by Badian half a century ago.”

But see, for example, Marek Jan Olbrycht, Aleksander Wielki i swiat iranski [Alexander the Great and the Iranian World] (Poland 2004, reviewed in BMCR 2006.03.41)

(6) The date of Croesus’s defeat. Lendering reports that:”Another example is the statement that Croesus was defeated in the year 547 (p. 41), which has become untenable since the 1977 edition of Grayson’s Assyrian and Babylonian Chronicles…”

Grayson’s hypothesis has not been accepted by the academic mainstream. See Briant (2002, p. 34), Bradford (2004, p. 41), Curtis (1990, p.39), Frye (1984, p. 92), MacKenzie (2008, p. 454), Mallowan (1985, pp. 392-419), Mieroop (2004, p. 268), Mikalson (2003, p. 48), Padgen (2006, p. 7), Prevas (2002, p. 21) and Wisehofer (2001, p. 2). Major refereed reference guides such as The Encyclopedia Americana (see p. 733) and The Encyclopedia Britannica (see p. 942) also cite the date of 547 BC.

(7) Misspellings: Lendering …objects to spelling errors in footnote 8: “Oriontes for Orontes (p. 54), Atoosa for Atossa (p. 74), Nochus for Nothus (p. 88)…”

Atoosa is the Iranic phonology for the term. There is no phonological basis for suggesting that only Lendering’s version—Atossa—is correct. The book is in English which does not allow the author to use Persian (Arabic-based) script to express the Iranic linguistic conventions. Lendering may be applying a Eurocentric application of terminology towards Iranic nomenclature. There is nothing wrong with this as long as it is recognized that this is not the only “correct” version for the Iranic terminology.

(8) Darius and the Imperial Navy. Lendering (in footnote 7) writes: “… on p. 68, we learn that Darius created an imperial navy; it was Cambyses (H.T. Wallinga, Ships and Sea Power before the Great Persian War [1993]).”

Cambyses’ role is no longer acknowledged by leading authorities in the field of Iranian military history. Motofi, who is considered to be the Richard Keegan of ancient Iranian warfare, stated clearly in 1999 that “Until the onset of Darius’ rule, the Achamenid military did not have a significant navy” (p. 7). Lendering may also be unfamiliar with the studies of Iranian marine archaeologists of the Aero-Marine Research Center of Malek Ashtar University in Iran, who reconstructed ancient Iranian warships of the reigns of Darius and Xerxes in 2005. Lendering’s misconception may derive from Cambyses’ use of Phoenician ships during his invasion of Egypt (These details are fully discussed along with references in Farrokh’s book). However, the deployment of Phoenician ships in a single campaign does not mean that Iran had an imperial navy in Cambyses’ time. Also, Lendering omits reference to other scholars on the subject (i.e. Mayerson, 1987; Motofi, 1999; Gabriel, 2002).

Non-military consequences of military history. Lendering reports that: “…If the reader is surprised about what is left out from Shadows in the Desert, he will be astonished to discover what is included: linguistics, Babylonian astronomy, the Silk Road, the Baghdad Battery, and the Alanic origins of the King Arthur legend. These digressions make for pleasant reading, surely, but are irrelevant to ancient Persia at war.” It is unclear as to how the social, economic, linguistic, political, technical, linguistic, etc. consequences of military history are “irrelevant”. A major conference in Wittenberg in November 2003 focused specifically on the topic of the cultural consequences of the military history of Persia-Central Asia, Arms and Armour Indicators of Cultural Transfer: The Steppes and the Ancient World from Hellenistic Times to the Early Middle Ages.

(9) Cyrus the Great. Lendering reports that: “The strangest inclusion is the Cyrus Cylinder, a document from Babylon in which the conqueror presents himself as the ideal king: [which was called] by the government of Mohammad Reza Shah, ‘the world’s first human rights charter’. Farrokh repeats this propaganda verbatim on page 44, apparently unaware of the extensive secondary literature on the subject…”

Farrokh makes reference to the Cylinder within the context of discussing a range of references including primary sources (e.g., the Hebrew Bible) in the overall discussion of Cyrus’ policies during his reign. While true that that the cylinder was part of a distinct Mesopotamian tradition of presenting the monarch in a favorable light, Lendering’s allusions to the favorable history of Cyrus (and the Cylinder in particular) being contemporary “propaganda” by the former Pahlavi regime of Iran are categorically false.

A number of contemporary scholars such as Robertson and Merrills (1996), Ramcharan (2008) and Ritmeyer have cited the cylinder as the world’s first human rights declaration, a view not shared by all researchers of the domain including Briant. Lendering raises questions about the historical veracity of Cyrus having allowed the Jews to return home from Babylon by stating in footnote 2 that: “The most recent edition is Die Inschriften Nabonids von Babylon und Kyros’ des Grossen (Münster 2001) by Hanspeter Schaudig. Claims that the Cylinder, if it is not ‘the world’s first human rights charter’, at least proves that Cyrus allowed the Jews to return home, have been challenged by Diana Edelman, The Origins of the ‘Second’ Temple (London 2005).” Edelman’s views have made no major impact on the established scholarship of the field. This is clearly seen in reference to Curtis, Tallis, and Andre-Salvini (2005), who noted that it was Cyrus’ policies of allowing Jews and other deported peoples into their homelands that marked a significant reversal of the former policies of the Babylonian and Assyrian empires. As noted by Talbott in 2005, it was Cyrus the Great who is the earliest known advocate of religious freedom in the 6th century BC and was opposed to slavery by freeing thousands of slaves. Lendering’s suggestion that these interpretations are somehow linked to the propaganda of the former Pahlavi regime is completely unsubstantiated. Farrokh’s text has simply been consistent with researchers such as Curtis, Tallis and Andre-Salvini, who noted that the ideas that led to the modern (twentieth century) concept of human rights are partly indebted to Cyrus’ benevolent policies.

Lendering has omitted scholarship on a complex topic. Instead he selectively cites controversial perspectives such as those of Van der Spek and Amelie Kuhrt. Kuhrt argued that the favorable historiography of Cyrus is “…a piece of blatant propaganda …based on “…the limited experience of one influential group of a very small community [the Jews]” (1983, pp. 94-95). It is true that Farrokh did not mention these particular theories; had he pointed out these contrasting views Farrokh would have made his discussion more robust. However to suggest that explanations offered by sources such as Kuhrt are representative of the “extensive secondary literature” diverges widely from the academic reality: these hypotheses have not found acceptance within the mainstream of Iranian Studies.

Summary and Conclusion Lendering’s review of Shadows in the Desert: Ancient Persia at War is characterized by the presentation of erroneous information, the arbitrary selection and rejection of information, and ignorance of much of the scholarship in the field of Iranian studies. However, it has afforded the opportunity of allowing these misconceptions to be examined, discussed and analyzed within a collegial academic forum.2

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1.Culican, (1965), pp. 89, in Chapter V “Palaces and Archives”, The Medes and the Persians. London: Thames and Hudson.

2. A fuller version of this response can be found at